Freedom as Wholeness
Phil 3200: Political and Social Freedom
Philosophers have been grappling with the idea of freedom for a very long time and have highlighted many aspects and conditions of life that bring us as humans a higher sense of freedom. These many conceptions generally fall into two categories, known as negative and positive freedom. Each make strong arguments as to what the criterion for freedom should be, but there seems to be incompleteness to these individual theories. It’s as if our philosophers are all observing the same universal truth from their individual perspectives, and yet are not able to see it from each other’s. That is why I will argue that freedom is wholeness, or the realization that we are not just our individual selves, but we are everything we share our existence with, and therefore we must be the guardians of not only our individual freedom and well being, but of the entire natural universe. To emphasize my point, first I will describe to the best of my ability the inherent flaws in negative and positive freedom.
One major proponent of negative freedom is Isaiah Berlin who says that I am “free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity…” In his explanation it is made clear that interference can only come from outside of the self, and one is free to the degree that opportunities are made available to them. For those of us who have experienced external obstacles to what we want, this feels like a sound argument. However, a deeper look at this concept reveals how impoverished it is.
To say that one is free simply because they have no obstacles in their way is misleading and, I would argue, childish and destructive. To have absolutely anything I want is to not live in reality, where there are real limitations and boundaries, many of which are for our own benefit. For instance, if I wanted to harm another person because they insulted me, but there is a physical barrier between that person and myself, or there is a law that says that harming another person is illegal, am I to be considered unfree? No, because that same law that forbids me from harming another also protects me from being physically harmed by another person, assuming the laws are enforced equally. Nancy Hirschmann observes the social implication of this concept, noting that these ideals of, “individualism and rights display a masculinist bias…” To say that freedom is among the highest of virtues, and that means to not be interfered with, is to either ignore or disregard the vast majority of the population who experience great levels of interference from marginalization, discrimination, and depravity of resources from the elite and privileged classes.
Charles Taylor adds that, “We can’t say that someone is free… if he is totally unrealized, if for instance he is totally unaware of his potential.” From a holistic perspective, one must understand that there is room for one’s own growth and that desires they have presently might change with time and maturation. He acknowledges the possibility of a positive outcome through interference or guidance from those who, “know us intimately, and who surpass us in wisdom…” From a negative freedom perspective, this person would simply be a limiting agent, and only an obstruction to freedom. But, just as a child is in need of guidance to become self-reliant and a positive member of the community, we all need the ability and willingness to seek counsel to navigate our lives.
To discuss positive freedom, Taylor tells us that negative freedom does not acknowledge the internal barriers that we experience. He says that, “You are not free if you are motivated, through fear, inauthentically internalized standards, or false consciousness, to thwart your self-realization,” and that positive freedom is, “…to be able to do what you really want, or to follow your real will, or to fulfill the desires of your own true self.” This theory is constructed on the premise that we are gripped by our internal compulsions and patterns to behave in a certain way not necessarily in our best interests, and to break the shackles of our fears and habits we need to discern between the motivations of our actions. This is positive freedom. As humans we tend to have more than one motivation or desire at a time, and oftentimes these desires conflict with one another, so this theory does well to acknowledge this reality. But it is also flawed in its foundation.
Framing the achievement of freedom as the pursuit of ones ‘true’ self leaves this ideal open to the extremes of its interpretations and implications. The idea is that if one claims to embody their true self, to have ‘found God’ and believes they are the most rational among people, they are the most dangerous kind of person. Berlin reminds us that, “This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor, and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to know what is best for them,” This was Hitler’s justification for his treatment of the Jews, the crusaders’ for their conquest, and the American settlers’ for the extermination of the Native Americans. This is the concept of freedom used by the heads of totalitarian states to do whatever they deem as appropriate to their populations. As Berlin illustrates; I, the despot see my own rationale as impeccable and will impose my true will because, “I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason. My task would be easier if you repressed it in yourself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational.” This is also the reasoning behind terrorist extremists all over the world. My way is the rational way and all those who do not see it my way must be dealt with. In Paul Berman’s analysis of Qutb’s “In the Shade of the Qur’an” he highlights how, with a strong enough positive freedom sentiment and articulation, those who believe they are doing the work of God, “feel they are benefitting the world, even if they are committing random massacres.” Though the practice of discerning between one’s motivations, and choosing to act on motivations we believe are of our highest interests, can be beneficial and freeing, it is not a complete theory, and so the conception of positive freedom is as fragmented and impoverished as negative freedom.
As an alternative to the untenable conceptions of negative and positive freedom, I’d like to offer that freedom is wholeness. Wholeness requires one to be unobstructed by unnecessary interference, and also requires one to discern between their desires and motivations, trying to act on the most noble of them, and is much more. It requires us to reflect and open our hearts and minds to the bigger picture we are a part of. I want to include that wholeness, and therefore freedom, is self-transcendence, which implies the preservation of all that the self transcends into and all that transcends into the self. One is free to the extent that they realize who they really are and take action to protect and nurture their well being. We are much more than our philosophers imply that we are, limited to our individual physical shells or identification with a group or nation. We are every life form, tree, river, and phenomenon, and we are deeply connected by the fabric of our existence in the universe.
Nature does not care about our philosophies about it. Nature is simply the state of reality, and to thrive and be free in this reality we must understand and align with it as a whole, and not just part of it. Our philosophies are inherently limited because they come from our own life experiences, developed in the collective experience, expressed from our own perspectives. As an American, Caucasian, middle class, 21st century male in a patriarchic society, I can only speak from my own perspective, among many with the same back round, to try and explain what I believe freedom is. Because I am not a woman, immediately I am speaking from a perspective that half of the human population does not share; as a man I can only listen and include the female perspective in my processing, but never come from that place. I only have a part of the truth, and to live life only based on what I learn from my own perspective, I limit myself to a very narrow collection of options. To expand my way of living, and therefore my freedom, I need to include perspectives of many different people from many different back rounds. In this way I have a more whole perspective of what living life as a human is like and what possibilities are available in every situation I am faced with, like adding tools to my tool belt.
With this in mind, we can analyze the current situation facing our planet with the climate crisis. Our collective habit of burning fossil fuels over the last hundred years has brought us to an indisputable turning point in the planet’s natural eco, weather, climate systems, that scientists have now dubbed the anthopocene; the geologic era where the activities of human beings are the dominant force influencing the weather and the environment. Our best projections of the future are illustrating catastrophic weather patterns and mass extinction of many of the life forms we share the planet with. World renowned intellectual and author, Noam Chomsky has said that, “In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive.” From the perspective of the people who are currently in power in the world, all of these are the necessary sacrifices of their self-enrichment. More wealth, power and comfort at the expense of everyone else’s poverty, disenfranchisement and misery, as well as the death of our fellow creatures and the natural systems we all rely on. This blatant and relentless violence, they could argue, is their right. They have achieved the maximum amount of freedom in the positive and negative sense. The powerful have the smallest amount of interference with the freedom to make choices toward their highest ideas; self-preservation and enrichment. The problem with this achievement is that the lifestyle that they embody is unsustainable, and fully dependent upon exploiting the people and natural systems they share this planet with, and once these resources are destroyed, their ability to enjoy this lifestyle, and therefore their freedom, is destroyed.
However, if the people in power, with their limited perspectives, decided to commune and listen to the perspectives of native peoples all over the world, their freedom, as well as the freedom, well-being, dignity, and longevity of all people and life forms on the planet, could be protected and sustainably enjoyed. Native peoples are known for their ability to live in wholeness; sustainably in harmony with nature. Their practices stem from the philosophy that we are all one family, and that we all depend on one another to thrive and live freely. This is the point that I would like to make. If I am well and free, but my loved one or community is sick and suffering, it is inescapable that I will suffer at least in part from their ailment. If my community and I are both well and free to do as we please, but the environment, including it’s many life forms, is unhealthy and oppressed, the community, and therefore myself, will suffer collectively. To make a clearer example, if the environment, people, including myself, are all well, but the earth is impacted by a large asteroid, everyone suffers and likely dies. We are all one, and the deeper and clearer we understand that, and act symbiotically with each other and the natural world, of which we are just a part of, the greater our expression of freedom becomes.
This is why self-transcendence is the key to enjoying freedom. When I transcend myself, and see the world from a new perspective, my world has expanded. I no longer see my needs and desires as the only ones to consider, and now have a greater awareness as to what my place is in my life. To gain perspectives from people with whom I have an amiable relationship is important, however to understand the perspectives of those I disagree with and/or despise can be far more beneficial in deepening my acceptance and compassion for other people and myself. This is a process of maturation. In this way I enhance my freedom by harmonizing my relationships with others, minimizing the likelihood that they would want to interfere with my desires, but I also cultivate this feeling of family and well being that Native peoples’ wisdoms inform us is the undistorted reality.
Wholeness through self-transcendence implies the preservation of all that the self transcends into and all that transcends into the self. This means that my own preservation is not enough. To enjoy the greatest freedom I must transcend, with my heart and mind, my own species and recognize the deep interconnection between me, animals, insects, microorganisms, rivers, mountains, trees, wind, and all that we know and don’t yet know. Every atom in every one of our bodies has been recycled, passed from one form to another in other people, creatures, earth, and plants, tracing all the way back to the formation of the different elements in ancient stars and the origin of our universe. To deny and exploit these extensions of our being is to deny and exploit ourselves, diminishing our well being and ultimately our freedom.
 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, The Liberty Reader p. 34
 Nancy J. Hirschmann, Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom, The Liberty Reader p.207
 Charles Taylor, What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.144
 Charles Taylor, What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.147
 Charles Taylor, What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.146-147
 Charles Taylor, What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.147
 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.53
 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, The Liberty Reader p.55
 Paul Berman, The Philosopher of Islamic Terror
 Umair Haque, The True Challenge of the 12st Century
 NASA Climate Change Website
 Noam Chomsky, interview with Canada’s National Observer, 2019